Home | Reviews | Blog | Daily | Glossary | Orrin's Stuff | Email

I consider it necessary to dissect Darwin's conceptual framework of evolution into a number of major theories that formed the basis of his evolutionary thinking. For the sake of convenience, I have partitioned Darwin's evolutionary paradigm into five theories, but of course others might prefer a different division. The selected theories are by no means all of Darwin's evolutionary theories; others were, for instance, sexual selection, pangenesis, effect of use and disuse, and character divergence. However when later authors referred to Darwin's theory thay invariably had a combination of some of the following five theories in mind:

1. Evolution as such. This is the theory that the world is not constant or recently created nor perpetually cycling, but rather is steadily changing, and that organisms are transformed in time.

2. Common descent. This is the theory that every group of organisms descended from a common ancestor, and that all groups of organisms, including animals, plants, and microorganisms, ultimately go back to a single origin of life on earth.

3. Multiplication of species. This theory explains the origin of the enormous organic diversity. It postulates that species multiply, either by splitting into daughter species or by "budding", that is, by the establishment of geographically isloated founder populations that evolve into new species.

4. Gradualism. According to this theory, evolutionary change takes place through the gradual change of populations and not by the sudden (saltational) production of new individuals that represent a new type.

5. Natural selection. According to this theory, evolutionary change comes about throught the abundant production of genetic variation in every generation. The relatively few individuals who survive, owing to a particularly well-adapted combination of inheritable characters, give rise to the next generation.

    -EXCERPTS: Ideological Opposition to Darwin's Five Theories (Ernst Mayr, One Long Argument)
After sufficient prodding, we decided to take a look at Ernst Mayr's supposedly more scientific version (more so than Richard Dawkins) of the modern theory of Darwinism. As you can see from the above, it's not much different than Dawkins's-- "the minimal theory that evolution is guided in adaptively nonrandom directions by the nonrandom survival of small random hereditary changes."--though certainly more verbose. What's startling though is the degree to which it's anti-scientific.

The first two subtheories are fairly uncontroversial. Everyone accepts that evolution has occurred, that species today are different than those which preceded them, and that even within a species change occurs over time. The middle subtheory, that geography influences species, seems confirmed, in part, by observation--which is to say that penguins seem better adapted to cold than emus--though it concludes with a mere assertion that this is sufficient to cause new species to arise too. The fourth seems somewhat Jesuitical--a rebuke to Stephen Jay Gould's punctuated equilibrium thinking--though neither is based on evidence. Finally, the last is simply false. We see no evidence that there is significant genetic variation in every generation of any species, while the notion that few individuals survive from each generation, never mind so few that we can say they are better adapted than their less mutated brethren, is risible. The problem for Darwinism is that the last subtheory--natural selection--is the thread by which the whole project hangs and it is wrong on its face.

So, what's going on here? If Ernst Mayr is the avatar of neo-Darwinism, how can his version of the theory be so weak as to not withstand basic scrutiny? Well, Mr. Mayr gives up the game easily when he disavows the idea of Darwinism as a physical science and describes it instead as a philosophy or a historical narrative, Darwin's Influence on Modern Thought: This article is based on the September 23, 1999, lecture that Mayr delivered in Stockholm on receiving the Crafoord Prize from the Royal Swedish Academy of Science (Ernst Mayr)
Darwin founded a new branch of life science, evolutionary biology. Four of his contributions to evolutionary biology are especially important, as they held considerable sway beyond that discipline. The first is the non-constancy of species, or the modern conception of evolution itself. The second is the notion of branching evolution, implying the common descent of all species of living things on earth from a single unique origin. Up until 1859, all evolutionary proposals, such as that of naturalist Jean-Baptiste Lamarck, instead endorsed linear evolution, a teleological march toward greater perfection that had been in vogue since Aristotle's concept of Scala Naturae, the chain of being. Darwin further noted that evolution must be gradual, with no major breaks or discontinuities. Finally, he reasoned that the mechanism of evolution was natural selection.

These four insights served as the foundation for Darwin's founding of a new branch of the philosophy of science, a philosophy of biology. Despite the passing of a century before this new branch of philosophy fully developed, its eventual form is based on Darwinian concepts. For example, Darwin introduced historicity into science. Evolutionary biology, in contrast with physics and chemistry, is a historical science - the evolutionist attempts to explain events and processes that have already taken place. Laws and experiments are inappropriate techniques for the explication of such events and processes. Instead one constructs a historical narrative, consisting of a tentative reconstruction of the particular scenario that led to the events one is trying to explain.

-ERNST MAYR: WHAT EVOLUTION IS: Introduction by Jared Diamond (Edge, 10.31.01)
EDGE: To what extent has the study of evolutionary biology been the study of ideas about evolutionary biology? Is evolution the evolution of ideas, or is it a fact?

ERNST MAYR: That's a very good question. Because of the historically entrenched resistance to the thought of evolution, documented by modern-day creationism, evolutionists have been forced into defending evolution and trying to prove that it is a fact and not a theory. Certainly the explanation of evolution and the search for its underlying ideas has been somewhat neglected, and my new book, the title of which is What Evolution Is, is precisely attempting to rectify that situation. It attempts to explain evolution. As I say in the first section of the book, I don't need to prove it again, evolution is so clearly a fact that you need to be committed to something like a belief in the supernatural if you are at all in disagreement with evolution. It is a fact and we don't need to prove it anymore. Nonetheless we must explain why it happened and how it happens.

One of the surprising things that I discovered in my work on the philosophy of biology is that when it comes to the physical sciences, any new theory is based on a law, on a natural law. Yet as several leading philosophers have stated, and I agree with them, there are no laws in biology like those of physics. Biologists often use the word law, but for something to be a law, it has to have no exceptions. A law must be beyond space and time, and therefore it cannot be specific. Every general truth in biology though is specific. Biological "laws" are restricted to certain parts of the living world, or certain localized situations, and they are restricted in time. So we can say that their are no laws in biology, except in functional biology which, as I claim, is much closer to the physical sciences, than the historical science of evolution.

EDGE: Let's call this Mayr's Law.

MAYR: Well in that case, I've produced a number of them. Anyhow the question is, if scientific theories are based on laws and there aren't any laws in biology, well then how can you say you have theories, and how do you know that your theories are any good? That's a perfectly legitimate question. Of course our theories are based on something solid, which are concepts. If you go through the theories of evolutionary biology you find that they are all based on concepts such as natural selection, competition, the struggle for existence, female choice, male dominance, etc. There are hundreds of such concepts. In fact, ecology consists almost entirely of such basic concepts. Once again you can ask, how do you know they're true? The answer is that you can know this only provisionally by continuous testing and you have to go back to historical narratives and other non-physicalist methods to determine whether your concept and the consequences that arise from it can be confirmed.

EDGE: Is biology a narrative based of our times and how we look at the world?

MAYR: It depends entirely on when in the given age of the intellectual world you ask these questions. For instance when Darwin published The Origin of Species, the leading Cambridge University geologist was Sedgwick, and Sedgwick wrote a critique of Darwin's Origin that asked how Darwin could be so unscientific as to use chance in some of his arguments, when everyone knew that God controlled the world? Now who was more scientific, Darwin or Sedgwick? This was in 1860 and now, 140 years later, we recognize how much this critique was colored by the beliefs of that time. The choice of historical narratives is also very time-bound. Once you recognize this, you cease to question their usefulness. There are a number of such narratives that are as ordinary as proverbs and yet still work.

EDGE: Darwin is bigger than ever. Why?

MAYR: One of my themes is that Darwin changed the foundations of Western thought. He challenged certain ideas that had been accepted by everyone, and we now agree that he was right and his contemporaries were wrong. Let me just illuminate some of them. One such idea goes back to Plato who claimed that there were a limited number of classes of objects and each class of objects had a fixed definition. Any variation between entities in the same class was only accidental and the reality was an underlying realm of absolutes.

EDGE: How does that pertain to Darwin?

MAYR: Well Darwin showed that such essentialist typology was absolutely wrong. Darwin, though he didn't realize it at the time, invented the concept of biopopulation, which is the idea that the living organisms in any assemblage are populations in which every individual is uniquely different, which is the exact opposite of such a typological concept as racism. Darwin applied this populational idea quite consistently in the discovery of new adaptations though not when explaining the origin of new species.

Another idea that Darwin refuted was that of teleology, which goes back to Aristotle. During Darwin's lifetime, the concept of teleology, or the use of ultimate purpose as a means of explaining natural phenomena, was prevalent. In his Critique of Pure Reason, Kant based his philosophy on Newton's laws. When he tried the same approach in a philosophy of living nature, he was totally unsuccessful. Newtonian laws didn't help him explain biological phenomena. So he invoked Aristotle's final cause in his Critique of Judgement. However, explaining evolution and biological phenomena with the idea of teleology was a total failure.

To make a long story short, Darwin showed very clearly that you don't need Aristotle's teleology because natural selection applied to bio-populations of unique phenomena can explain all the puzzling phenomena for which previously the mysterious process of teleology had been invoked.

Out of all that, the comparison to Aristotle and Plato, etc., we might extract just this: "Evolutionary biology, in contrast with physics and chemistry, is a historical science - the evolutionist attempts to explain events and processes that have already taken place. Laws and experiments are inappropriate techniques for the explication of such events and processes. Instead one constructs a historical narrative, consisting of a tentative reconstruction of the particular scenario that led to the events one is trying to explain." In other words, Darwinism is really just a replacement Creation myth, one that tries to displace God and substitute Nature in explaining how the world around us came into being.

Mr. Mayr states this himself, in no uncertain terms:
"There is indeed one belief that all true original Darwinians held in common, and that was their rejection of creationism, their rejection of special creation. This was the flag around which they assembled and under which they marched. When Hull claimed that "the Darwinians did not totally agree with each other, even over essentials", he overlooked one essential on which all these Darwinians agreed. Nothing was more essential for them than to decide whether evolution is a natural phenomenon or something controlled by God. The conviction that the diversity of the natural world was the result of natural processes and not the work of God was the idea that brought all the so-called Darwinians together in spite of their disagreements on other of Darwin's theories..." (One Long Argument: Charles Darwin and the Genesis of Modern Evolutionary Thought)

It's inappropriate then to even look to Darwinism to offer scientific justifications for itself--it is in no sense a science. Rather, it is an alternative religion and like all religions depends for its validity on the faith of its adherents. So, yes, Mr. Mayr does ultimately offer a more coherent case for Darwinism than does Mr. Dawkins, but it is a less not a more scientific case. It is an argument from faith.


Grade: (C)


Ernst Mayr Links:

    -ESSAY: The concerns of science (Ernst Mayr, July-August 1999, Skeptical Inquirer)
    The Evolution of Ernst: Interview with Ernst Mayr: The preeminent biologist, who just turned 100, reflects on his prolific career and the history, philosophy and future of his field On July 5, renowned evolutionary biologist Ernst Mayr celebrated his 100th birthday. He also recently finished writing his 25th book, What Makes Biology Unique?: Considerations on the Autonomy of a Scientific Discipline [Cambridge University Press, in press]. A symposium in Mayr's honor was held at Harvard University on May 10. Scientific American editor and columnist Steve Mirsky attended the symposium and wrote about it for the upcoming August issue. On May 15, Mirsky, Brazilian journalist Claudio Angelo and Angelo's colleague Marcelo Leite visited Mayr at his apartment in Bedford, Mass. (Scientific American, 7/06/04)
    -CV: Ernst Mayr
    -Ernst Mayr Library
    -PROFILE: Ernst Mayr, Darwin's Disciple (Christine Bahls, Nov. 17, 2003, The Scientist)
    -PROFILE: The Big Picture: Ernst Mayr: Evolutionary biologist (Beth Potier, Harvard Gazette)
    -EXCERPTS: from Ernst Mayr's "Toward a New Philosophy of Biology"
    -Ernst Mayr and the Evolutionary Synthesis (
    -ESSAY: Nature, Freedom, and Responsibility: Ernst Mayr and Isaiah Berlin (Strachan Donnelley, Winter, 2000, Social Research)
    -ARCHIVES: "ernst mayr" (Find Articles)
    -REVIEW: of The Evolutionary Synthesis: Perspectives on the Unification of Biology, Ernst Mayr + William B. Provine (editors) (Danny Yee)
    -TRIBUTE: Ernst Mayr, Biologist Extraordinaire: An appreciation of Harvard's visionary of modern evolutionary synthesis (Lynn Margulis, May/June 2004, American Scientist)
    -EXCERPT: Fred Hoyle, Mathematics of Evolution
"The ability of species to adapt by changing one base pair at a time on any gene, and to do so with comparative rapidity if selective advantages are reasonably large, explains the fine details of the matching of many species to their environment. It was from the careful observation of such matchings by naturalists in the mid-nineteenth century that the Darwinian theory arose. Because the observations were made with extreme care, it was highly probable that immediate inferences drawn from them would prove to be correct, as the work of Chapters 3 to 6 shows to be the case. What was in no way guaranteed by the evidence, however, was that evolutionary inferences correctly made in the small for species and their varieties could be extrapolated to broader taxonomic categories, to kingdoms, divisions, classes, and orders. Yet this is what the Darwinian theory did, and it was by going far outside its guaranteed range of validity that the theory ran into controversies and difficulties which have never been cleared up over more than a century."

Book-related and General Links: